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Third Copenhagen Consensus: Armed Conflict Assessment, Dunne

An Assessment Paper on Armed Conflict has been written by J. Paul Dunne and released by the Copenhagen Consensus Center. The working paper used by the Expert Panel is available for download here, the finalized paper has been published in Global Problems, Smart Solutions - Costs and Benefits by Cambridge University Press.

In addition two Perspective Papers have been released, one by Anke Hoeffler and one by Andrew Mack.

Short summary

Armed conflict is a major global problem and disproportionately affects the world’s poorest. Conflict gets in the way of efforts to reduce poverty, ensure health and promote education. Not a single low-income country afflicted by violence has achieved even one of the eight Millennium Development goals.

In each year of the 1980s and 1990s there were between thirty and forty major armed conflicts in progress, though over the past decade major armed conflicts have declined. In 2007, there were 14 major armed conflicts in 13 locations around the world, nearly all of which were civil wars. There was a wide variation in the intensity of these conflicts, from ‘low intensity’ guerrilla-government conflicts, to conflicts between relatively large and well-equipped armies.

There are now more states than ever and also more disputes, but still relatively few lead to war.Though fewer fights, these days they tend to last longer. They range from the ideological struggles that we see in Mozambique, Eritrea, or Nicaragua, to more fragmented decentralised conflicts such as those of Somalia and Rwanda, with many a mixture of both at any particular time.

The nature of war has changed with a decreasing role for formal armies, lack of battlefield engagement, and increased involvement of civilians as victims.

The costs from conflicts can be immense and devastating – yet they are almost always understated because we ignore the legacies that violence leave behind. The immediately apparent, direct costs are loss of life and injury on the battlefield. But in many countries conflict leads to far greater casualties because of economic collapse so that fewer can afford health care, proper food and education – indeed because of the long lag in economic recovery after a conflict, people will die for years after a conflict ends. In addition to the direct and legacy costs, there are the spinoff costs such as the expense of looking after refugees displaced by one country’s internal strife.

In this research paper for Copenhagen Consensus, Paul Dunne adds up all of these costs and computes the benefits of using more and new funds to respond to armed conflicts.

The complex nature of conflict and its costs makes finding solutions immensely challenging. To be able to approach the problem more easily, Dunne focused on the three obvious points at which we can try to reduce the devastating impact of conflict: preventing it in the first place, intervening to end it when it occurs, and helping to reconstruct a nation after it has ended.

According to Dunne, conflict prevention is the most cost-effective solution. The causes of conflict are hugely varied and the roots of war are multifaceted, with important historical contexts. There are a number of factors that can be identified including colonial legacy, military governments and militaristic cultures, ethnicity and religion, unequal development, inequality and poverty, bad leadership, polity frailties and inadequacies, external influences, greed, and natural resources.

So how can we stop conflicts before they occur? Dunne pinpoints early warning mechanisms, peacekeeping operations, economic sanctions and aid as the tools that have proven effective in preventing conflicts.

Dunne calculates that spending about US$56 billion over four years on a combination of these measures would lead to benefits to the magnitude of at least US$606 billion. Among these benefits, the avoided deaths, injuries, and other conflict-related violence are perhaps the most compelling arguments for the use of available funds for prevention.

Given the high possible benefits and low costs of prevention efforts, conflict prevention has a benefit cost ratio of at least 11. This means that, when we look at it entirely in economic terms, each dollar spent achieves benefits worth at least $11 dollars, making it an impressively beneficial solution.

If conflicts do break out, the next stage is possible intervention. At this stage it will be impossible to avoid a significant part of the cost of conflict and it the intervention itself will also be more costly. The projected cost of intervention of about US$100 billion includes better intelligence, economic sanctions and aid as well as most likely military intervention. This is nearly double the cost of preventing a conflict in the first place. Yet, with benefits of at least $606  billion, there are still large pay-offs to be reaped. For each dollar spent, we can avoid conflict damage worth about $5, making intervention a cost-effective use of resources.

When conflicts end what is needed for reconstruction is contingent on the nature of the conflict and the way that it ended. Most of the costs of conflict have already been incurred, but still there is a benefit to be reaped by making post-recovery faster and the risk of relapse smaller. Particularly important are the legacy costs of the conflict, such as more general violence within the society. Post-conflict policies can be costly but are also cost-effective in preventing suffering and building up economies that provide new markets and raw materials.  According to research by former Copenhagen Consensus expert panel member and researcher Paul Collier, economic reconstruction reduces the risk of a renewed outbreak of conflict by 42% in ten years.

The cost of post-conflict policies is higher than intervention at around $140bn, and the benefits are also smaller at $404bn. In total, it is estimated that each dollar will avoid at least $3 of conflict damage. While post-conflict policies may not have the highest benefit-cost ratio, Dunne argues that they are crucial in ensuring successful development can occur. For that reason, these policies are already attracting considerable resources from the international donor community.

Dunne emphasizes that although he has examined many of the different ways that conflicts impose a cost on society, the true cost is still likely to be hugely underestimated. There are immeasurable quantities and legacy costs that are difficult to identify. The existence of drugs, criminal gangs and violence in South American countries such as Colombia in the present day, for example, can be traced back to the ending of an armed conflict without true peace being achieved.

The bottom line is that without peace there cannot be development and solving other challenges becomes impossible. Seen in that light, the benefits of curtailing the costs of conflict are definitely worth considering.